"Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence" –George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)
As the clock ticked over midnight, Castle reached for her empty mug to fill it yet again. He had lost track of how many times in the past twenty four hours his hands had completed the ritual. It had been a long, dark week, fitting with the season, if not his usual jubilant celebration of it. Now, before he could rise from his seat beside her desk, Beckett caught his wrist, closed the file in front of her, placed it on top of the overflowing outbox.
He knew she meant more than just the last piece of paperwork. Letting out a breath, she closed her eyes. Every one of the past five sleepless nights showed in her heavy lids, the creases deepening at their corners. Kate Beckett would always be beautiful, but some nights, the push for the close, the rush for answers at any cost, surfaced despite the make-up and caffeine.
Though he had released her mug, she hadn't yet removed her hand from where it rested just below the cuff of his dress shirt. That alone told him she must be exhausted. Still not admitting the change in their relationship to anyone other than his family, and living in constant fear of discovery by Gates, both had kept to "minimal contact" at the precinct.
Now, the soft pad of her thumb circled against the thin skin just above the articulation of his wrist and arm.
"Let me splash some water on my face."
It didn't occur to him to ask where they were going, or if they were going together. Knowing they might not be lucky enough to leave early, might be in a rush for their plans, and not trusting the availability of cabs on Halloween night, he had a car waiting. As the hours ticked by, he decided to keep the car service on call, as neither wanted to battle the noise and rush of public transit tonight. His words to the driver alerted him that they were on their way down, but that their destination had changed.
Their case had hit her hard. Children always did. But this time, there was something more—this one had taken her deeper inside herself than she had been since that night in May. For five months, Kate had been happy. For the past five days, the old shadows had fallen once again, clouding the bright eyes and paling the flushed cheeks, dissolving her beaming smile into that familiar somber press of lips.
He hadn't pushed, though he wanted to. In the end he knew more would come from his steady presence than from any attempt at words.
When she reemerged, some of the roughened edges smoothed, he saw the tinge of red, the carefully-wiped smudges.
Standing close, he tried not to crowd in the elevator. Time had taught him she would come. When the backs of their hands brushed, he imagined it reminded her that his comfort was there for the taking. Her hand spiraled around his, clasped palm to palm and squeezed tight, though her eyes were fixed on the falling numbers.
That contact lost fearing prying eyes in the lobby, it returned with the press of her thigh against his in the back seat.
"I'm sorry about tonight."
Her eyes wouldn't meet his, but her hand encased his knee, warmed it with the gentle spread of her fingers. Recognizing the invitation, he wrapped an arm around her, felt her head drop against the shoulder of his jacket, turned to find the top of her head with his lips.
"Don't worry about it. Mother and Alexis understand."
One measured breath in and the regret cascaded out, along with a genuine attempt at levity.
"But you had it all planned—the movies and the Jello brain and the absurd amount of candy corn."
A hint of a snarky smile played at her lips.
"They said they saved us both temporal lobes, and that you're not getting out of Rocky Horror."
She let out a disgruntled moan and nuzzled into his lapel.
"Hey, you're the one who told Alexis you played Janice in high school."
"I make no promises where musical theater is concerned."
The remainder of their short ride passed in silence, both exhausted and unsure.
Shoulders hunched, she unlocked her door and let him in. Thinking he might at least ease some of the physical tension, he turned back to her as she locked up, closed his hands over her shoulders, worked his fingers against the stiffness of her muscles through her coat.
"How about a shoulder rub?"
But she shrugged away and out of her coat, took his and hung it as well.
"I think I'm just going to take a quick shower."
"Want a bath instead? Some wine, maybe?"
Already halfway to her bedroom and unbuttoning clothes, she answered absently.
"No, I'll be quick. Just need to get this day off of me."
Opening the wine anyway, he poured them each a glass, thought back to the last time they'd had a chance to relax. They had been out on Friday night, a clandestine little date in a hole-in-the-wall in the East Village. And afterward they had gone to bed early, though not for sleep. They had finally fallen under, wrapped naked around one another in his bed, when the call came about the bones found under the floorboards in a closet a few blocks from their dinner.
His initial quip about appropriate places for skeletons on the week of Halloween had fallen flat. Soon after they had learned the bones belonged to two children. They had been found by the current tenant, on a hunt for more storage space. No one seemed to remember any children living there. So when Lanie informed them that the bones were decades old, belonging to two young girls, the team had started slogging through the filing cabinets of cold cases.
The break came when another detective heard the story in the break room, and the details rang a bell. Bruce Adler had come to Kate with a memory from nearly fifty years before: two sisters who had gone missing, the older one a grade school classmate. Names and newspaper details and the medical examiner's hard work had all coalesced into a macabre but final answer for the team.
The trail had led directly to the prime suspect in 1963, a disturbed neighbor never charged for lack of evidence. He had moved into the East Village apartment ten years after the girls had disappeared, but apparently he had brought that evidence with him.
For what little closure such devastating news might provide, no once was alive to listen. The parents had passed, had had no other children, no other family to speak of. And the murderer, too, had long since died, unpunished and unpenitent.
Sorrow, somber and gray, had settled over their team as the board was taken down. Beckett had sent Ryan and Esposito home early, taking the brunt of the mindless form-filling. She had tried to send Castle home as well, even used his family as a pawn to guilt him into leaving her. But he knew that whatever had Kate so wrapped up in darkness, had her chasing a cold case with the fervor of a fresh homicide, needed out. And he knew if he left her to her own devices that she would manage to push it down deep again.
Wine in hand as he crossed the bedroom, the sound of running water reached his ears. Knuckles poised to tap and offer the glass of cab, he stopped cold when he heard another sound, muffled by the water stream. A gasp, he thought, setting down the wine. But when it came a second time, his heart lurched to a halt. She was crying.
Instinct took over and he turned the knob, was relieved when the door opened.
There was another strangled sob from behind the curtain.
Waiting her out, giving her space, letting her come to him all be damned. He tugged gently on the fabric, released a cloud of steam, and in the midst of it huddled Kate, naked under the spray, arms wrapped tight around herself, chin tucked down to her chest. Her ribs expanded unsteadily, then slowly contracted as she carefully, silently let out the air. The heat of the water blotched her skin with pink, and dark tendrils of hair fell in a curtain around her face.
Already reaching for the taps, he fumbled with his other hand for her big fluffy robe, grasped it just as she finally let out a single plaintive note at the top of a nearly-controlled breath. Swaddling her in soft terrycloth, he wrapped his arms around her, let her bow and curve in around his body, bury her face in his neck. The heat of her was soaking his clothes, but he just gripped her tighter, lifted her off her feet until she picked them up, let him take her from the tub.
He walked her backward toward her bed, still tucked against him, but with every step she was reining in her tears. Half lifting her on the bed, he had to follow her when she wouldn't let go.
"Hey…" he soothed against her ear. Her throat clenched around a swallow, cleared.
"Don't you even think that, not for one second. Do you hear me?"
A silent nod and a stuttering breath were her only response.
"You cry all you want to. That's what I here for. Think of me as your own personal human hankie. Very absorbent."
A huff of something closer to laughter than tears washed warm against his skin.
Eventually she loosened her grip, started to fish for the arms of the robe, let him guide her hands to the openings and smooth the fabric, his own hands stroking up and down her back. Sucking in a steadying breath, she pulled one sleeve up to scrub over her face as she lifted her head from its place on his shoulder.
His fingers felt clumsy as they twined into the wet strands of hair still sticking to her cheeks and forehead, but he managed to tame them, tuck them back behind her ears. Catching her chin with the crook of one finger, he finally brought her eyes up, was taken aback at the shadows he found there.
"So are you going to tell me?"
"After all this, I guess I'm sort of obligated."
"No, you're not. And if you don't want to, I'll drop it and never ask again."
Her eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly.
"So all these years all I had to do was burst into tears and you would have shut up and left me alone?"
Brushing one errant tear from the curve of her cheek, he tried to make the smile reach his eyes.
"You're leaving out the most important part, Detective. You burst into tears naked in your shower. And you know exactly what all that glistening skin and dripping hair does to me."
His eyebrow waggle finally coaxed the watery chuckle from her. Rising, she headed to her bathroom, rubbed a towel through the aforementioned tresses.
"I brought us wine, but I can make tea instead."
"Wine is fine. There's a pair of pajama pants you left here in my bottom drawer. Maybe a t-shirt too."
So he was staying. Good.
Making fast work of changing, he joined her under the covers, looking sad but no longer distraught, propped up against the pillows at her headboard sipping wine with a red-tinged nose and swelling eyes.
Their bodies fit now without trying, but reaching around her shoulders, pulling her back against his chest, he was reminded of just how small she was. So often larger than life, protector, warrior, she seemed more substantial than he, but here, wrapped up in his body, she felt just small enough that maybe he could protect her, too.
"Her name was Emily." Kate spoke steady and low, head leaned back against his neck.
"She was my first best friend. We went to school together, lived down the block, had sleepovers, did all those little girl things together. Neither of us had a sister, so we sort of adopted one another."
He could picture Kate, pigtails curling, holding a flashlight in a blanket fort, giggling and telling secrets with her friend.
"When we were in second grade, we decided to dress up together for Halloween. We even got to wear our costumes to school. I was She-Ra."
"Princess of Power?"
"Mock me and you will never see in a costume. Not even the special private kind."
"Damn. Didn't know that was even a possibility. Besides, I wasn't mocking. She-Ra was a badass. Definitely worthy of eight-year-old Beckett."
"Emily was Wonder Woman. We both had capes—that was key. I was jealous, though, because she got the bracelets."
"They were pretty awesome bracelets."
Swallowing some wine, she fiddled with the edge of the blanket, let the silence fall.
"She disappeared from the playground that day."
Her ribs expanded slowly, and she turned her head toward him, let her warm breath brush his collarbone.
"No call, no note, nothing but one of the bracelets left by the curb. It was a small school, good neighborhood. Everyone was shocked. My parents didn't tell me details until years later, but they found him a week later, a school employee who had just lost his job. He had hanged himself in his apartment, with a note confessing to the kidnapping. Claimed he hadn't meant to hurt her; that she fell trying to get away from him, hit her head. He left directions to the field in Jersey where he buried her."
Quiet settled over her, and he clung to it, sank into the cloud of memory with her. Remembering his own close call with Alexis, those moments of panic when he thought he might never see her again, he couldn't help but hold his partner tighter.
For all her loss, all the sadness chasing her, she deserved some comfort, care.
And suddenly he realized for once she was taking all he offered, sharing this memory.
"That case four years ago—Sorenson told me about another case, one that didn't end happily, said that was the reason our case upset you so much."
"He didn't know, Castle. I've never told anyone about her."
His heart fluttered, swelled, pressed hard against his ribs. Something so small shouldn't affect him this way, shouldn't make him so grateful and needy and sad all at the same time. Turning in his arms, she looked up at him through the inky blackness of her lashes, laid a hand on his chest.
"Sometimes I'm afraid I'll forget her, afraid the world will, too, like the little girls we found."
"The world won't forget her. She's part of you." Mirroring her pose, he placed his palm over her heart. "She's right here."
She covered his hand with her own, intertwined their fingers, held them firm against her so that he could feel the heavy thump of the muscle beneath her ribs.
"And so are you."